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City probe finds 'human error' responsible for spiking hundreds of water bills

The city overcharged residents by more than $100,000 in January for water they didn’t use, officials said Thursday, Feb. 8, following a months-long public outcry over skyrocketing bills.

The findings are the result of an internal review by the Public Utilities Department last week that officials said traced the billing errors back to a single worker who had misread 343 meters in November and December.

“Let me say that the individual is no longer a city employee,” said PUD Director Vic Bianes, declining to provide further details on the person implicated. “This is a human-error issue with the input into the handheld device.

“I’m very confident that in this particular case, there are no other issues,” he added.

The investigation focused on northern San Diego in response to a high concentration of complaints, officials said. More than 3,000 meters were reviewed in Carmel Valley, Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Peñasquitos — revealing that hundreds of homes were overcharged by an average of $303.

Customers who overpaid by more than $50 will receive a refund in the mail, with the rest getting a credit on their next bill.

Residents in other parts of the city who may have been overcharged due to a department error will be identified in coming weeks as employees reread meters, Bianes said. “This month, we’re going to go out and read the rest of the city’s (meters) as part of the billing cycle to verify that no other misreads were done due to this human error.”

For weeks, water department officials dismissed ratepayer concerns about surging bills, pointing to inadvertent usage by residents as the primary culprit. While department officials maintain that customers are still responsible for the higher bills in many cases, last week’s revelations vindicated outraged members of the public.

“It’s fortuitous that so many people were impacted, otherwise the city would have blown it off,” said Mark Coast of Rancho Bernardo, who saw his bill jump from around $500 a month to $1,688.

Monty Criss, also of Rancho Bernardo, said his water bill doubled in January to $1,300: “I really honestly don’t think they care at all. I almost had to get another job to pay the water bill. It’s crazy.”

The blunder has also prompted the department to announce Thursday, Feb. 8, new accountability measures to improve the accuracy of future bills — including better supervision, spot checks, improved automated alerts that flag unusual spikes in water usage and a campaign to let water users know how to read their own meters and track usage.

“Every bill must be accurate and anything less is unacceptable,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement. “San Diegans need to be able to trust that their bills are correct and that every cent they pay goes to making sure we have safe, reliable water.”

Despite the department’s initial reluctance to look into customer complaints, the City Council requested recently that the independent Auditor conduct an investigation of the department. That inquiry was scheduled to begin Monday, Feb. 12, officials said.

“I will continue to work with the department to gather the pertinent information to ensure this is an isolated incident, and will be holding a public forum in my district to allow residents the opportunity to ask questions and get the answers they deserve,” City Councilman Chris Cate said in a statement.

Customers wishing to contest their bills have been encouraged to call the water department at (619) 515-3500 or email the agency at water@sandiego.gov.

Until the audit concludes, officials said that customers fighting high bills will continue to have access to water as long as they pay an amount equal to their average usage or what they were charged in the previous year during the same time period.

Authorities reminded customers that other factors unrelated to misread meters have contributed to higher water bills, most notably a citywide rate increase of 6.9 percent that took effect in August.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI, smart meters have not been implicated in the recent surge in bills, officials said. The city has replaced close to 90,000 of the city’s 285,000 water meters with the new technology. About 15,000 of those are being read remotely, with a full roll-out of the program expected by 2020.

Rather than causing billing issues, officials said the new technology will ensure customers are accurately charged, as well as allow people to more closely monitor their water use.

--Kristina Davis and Joshua Emerson Smith are writers for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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